Big data could revolutionise transport, right now

Transport data, the old fashioned way. Image: Getty.

The future of transport appears full of fun and flashy possibilities. From super-fast hyperloop transport systems, to self-driving cars and hovering taxis, new technology promises to move us further and faster than ever before. Yet for cities facing everyday problems such as congestion, air pollution and under capacity, the most effective solution could be the humble bus – coupled with the power of data. The Conversation

Of course, in many cities, technology has already begun replacing printed timetables with live departure boards, using real-time data about buses’ locations sourced from GPS monitoring. But this is just the beginning. There’s one source of data which could offer a live overview of a city’s entire transport network without a single penny of investment. And you’ve probably got it on you right now.

Modern mobile phones contain an array of sensors, including GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope, digital compass and more, which are capable of producing a constant stream of data. Individual units of movement, tracked by a phone’s GPS and processed on mass, can give detailed information on journey times, speed and destinations.

Fair trade

Of course, using this data without compromising users’ privacy is a challenge. When dealing with location information, anonymisation can only take you so far. But there is a neat solution. In exchange for their data, passengers could receive a wealth of benefits, including more flexible routes and timetables, predictive of need at any given hour. The level of service could be directly linked to the amount of data a passenger chooses to share.

By combining these data with efficient ticketing across a range of transport modes, including bus, tram, train, taxi and others, it would be possible to create a flexible and responsive system, which can tailor transport solutions to every person’s needs.

Individuals would be able to dial in their destination as they leave home, to be guided by the fastest, cheapest, healthiest or most environmentally friendly route to their destination on a given day, by whatever means, at a standard unit of price per distance. The routes would be responsive to changing weather and road closures, with flexible timetables and services, to cater for a wet Tuesday when everyone wants to take the bus rather than walk or cycle. Overcrowding could be reduced by balancing the load of commuters across different modes of transport.

Breath in. Image: Emily Lindsay Brown/author provided.

The best thing is, the system would constantly be learning and improving. It is relatively straightforward to automatically schedule extra services in real time if, say, there’s an unusually large number of people waiting at a particular stop. But, with sophisticated machine learning, which processes large amounts of historical data to detect patterns, slumps and hikes in demand could be preempted. Allowing a transport network to self-learn using data from its consumers can help it to evolve a better service, while maintaining the modest margins of the provider.

The transport system can also be used as a tool to promote social good. For one thing, price can be used as a powerful influence for positive behavioural change: discounts could be offered for getting off a stop earlier and walking the remaining distance. The bus or tram itself can also be enhanced by making it a place for culture, education and information. Advertising could be complemented or even replaced by community television, public art and educational information, which offer a more positive experience for the captive audience.


Here today?

All of this potential can be unlocked today: not in the future, but in the here and now. The main challenges are overcoming tradition, using a single ticket across various transport modes and apportioning revenue between a complex tapestry of transport providers within the domain of a single transport authority.

Alongside Bournemouth University, a small digital technology company, We Are Base, is attempting to do exactly that. Together, we are finding ways to leverage data to make public transport a better option than private vehicles in terms of punctuality, flexibility and comfort. We are also collecting and analysing real-time data to demonstrate how a transport network could use machine learning to optimise its customer transport efficiency.

The technology is the relatively easy part; negotiating local politics often proves more difficult. For instance, finding a fair way of distributing ticket revenues among operators involved in a journey which uses more than one mode of transport, potentially across a number of zones and boroughs. Gaining consumer trust is also essential. For such systems to work, the consumer must choose to follow journey suggestions, even though they might not seem to be optimal at the time. This is particularly difficult; after all, how many of us can say that we trust our local bus companies when some still struggle to run the services to a static timetable?

The opportunity for a transport revolution is here – but for it to work it must be aspired to. This starts with consumers and local authorities understanding and seeing the benefits of a self-learning, adaptable and truly flexible local transport system. And given that it’s within reach, they shouldn’t put up with anything less. So, next time someone proposes a flashy new solution to transport woes, just remember that true innovation lies in the hands of the commuters themselves – locked inside their mobile phones.

Marcin Budka is principal academic in data science, and Manuel Martin Salvador a PhD Candidate, at Bournemouth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.